Like his compatriot Stuart O'Grady, Cervelo's Simon Gerrans has a knack of sensing a good break. And like O'Grady, Gerrans has a knack of making the right break.
On a stinking hot Saturday afternoon and just 12 kilometres into a difficult, 172km fourteenth stage that presented the riders of the 92nd Giro d'Italia with five categorised climbs -including a nasty hilltop finish to Bologna's San Luca, whose slopes averaged close to nine percent - the dimple-faced Aussie from the southern State of Victoria found himself in a 13-man move.
Actually, it was team orders for him and his teammates. "The [team's] tactic was for Phil Deignan and I to ride in a breakaway in case Carlos [Sastre] came across and needed us in front [in the closing kilometres]," said Gerrans.
"I thought I was going to come to the Giro to try and win a stage, but I put my ambitions aside and thought my sole purpose was to ride for Carlos Sastre. It was only maybe in the last 20 kilometres that we knew our break would go all the way to the finish, and Phillip rode for me to win the stage."
Over the following 160 kilometres, the break lost one rider early on to make an even dozen, never gaining more than four-and-a-half minutes on the peloton. And as the day wore on, it only became hotter, into the mid-30s Celsius by the time the race neared its finish, and by consequence, increasingly harder.
But after his brilliant Tour de France stage victory to Prato Nevoso last year, Gerrans had the toughness, the condition, and perhaps most importantly, the experience.
It just so happened that on July 20, 2008, a break formed after 12 kilometres. It also happened that on the 183km fifteenth leg of that Tour, the stage ended with a mountain-top finish - and quite ironically, in Italy. And in the finale, three riders were left to fight for the win. Victory there bestowed the baby-faced Victorian with a new level of confidence and respect.
Could there have been a greater sense of déjà-vu?
"Yeah, it was little bit of déjà-vu," Gerrans said to Cyclingnews, "because I'm back [winning] in Italy. That win at the Tour was also my last win. I was thinking today about how that break was the last
break I was in."
As the riders passed under the sandstone arch of Pontecchio Marconi with 2.7km left to race, ISD's Andriy Grivko took flight just before the start of the climb to San Luca, a further 600 metres ahead.
The Ukrainian got the head start he wanted, but with the first 500 metres averaging a lung-busting 13.6%, Barloworld's Christopher Froome took over, setting an even faster tempo as the road became less steep.
But in the next half-kilometre, beginning with a short 16% pitch, the road kicked up again to average 12.2%. It must've hurt like hell.
"I hadn't ridden this climb before, but my teammates who have ridden the Giro dell'Emilia told me about it; they said it was like the Mur de Huy [the final climb of the Spring Classic, La Flèche Wallonne]," he said.
It's where Gerrans made his move.
Not so much an attack - but a tempo that his counterpart from Great Britain could not match and on slopes that would have sent mountain goats toppling backwards.
As the final 600 metres began to level out (unbeknown to him, Froome and Grivko had effectively blown), Gerrans pushed home his advantage, now a certain winner.
"It was a bit of a surprise that it ramped up two times," Gerrans said afterwards, "so I basically went as hard as I could to distance my breakaways companions. I thought I was riding really slowly because I was really exhausted, but it turned out that everyone was really exhausted."
By the arrivo where he spread his arms out wide in a victory gesture not unlike his win to Prato Nevoso last July, the 29-year-old had time to celebrate his joy and rub it right in to an expectant partisan crowd, finishing in front of Rubens Bertaglioti (Serramenti-Diquigiovanni) and Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre-N.G.C.) in second and third respectively.
"And like the Tour de France," said Gerrans, referring to the uncanny nature of both his Grand Tour wins, "it's a fantastic feeling, to win at the Giro d'Italia, and in my first experience at the Giro."
Small, though perhaps significant changes to GC
Behind Gerrans on the climb of San Luca, a battle of nerves was taking place between the favourites for the final maglia rosa.
2007 Giro champion Danilo Di Luca of LPR was creating most of the nervousness on territory all too familiar for the Ardennes Classics rider-turned-Grand Tour contender; attacking out the saddle, sitting back in the seat, attacking, sitting…
Eventually, only the names of Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone), race leader Denis Menchov and Sastre (Cervelo) could follow, although at the line, this climbing quintet distanced rivals Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Levi Leipheimer (Astana) by only three seconds. "Three seconds [ahead of Leipheimer] is not so much. I think it's a good sign for us, but it's too early to say if it's a good thing," Menchov said, who realised the top three on GC changed little after Saturday.
"I knew it was a perfect climb for [Di Luca], and he would ride for time at a minimum. But for me, it's important he didn't have a chance to take any bonus seconds [for finishing in the top three].
"I think the most important stages are to Monte Petrano [Stage 16] and Blockhaus [Stage 17]," said Menchov, "so that's where we'll see who has the condition to win [overall]. I think tomorrow [Stage 15] will be a little bit harder, but tactically, I think it will be more or less the same."
The most significant change in GC placing came when Ivan Basso (Liquigas) jumped ahead of Michael Rogers (Columbia-Highroad) into sixth by two seconds.
A biggish break
Conditions in Florence's Campi Bisenzio felt almost identical to the day before, but the major point of differentiation came in the percorso Giro organisers had laid down for Saturday's 14th stage. Five categorised climbs - a hat-trick of Cat. 2s and one Cat. 3, before a 2.1km long hilltop finish to Bologna's San Luca - made this medium mountain stage interesting.
It was no surprise to see Columbia-High Road's triple stage winner Mark Cavendish exit stage left, but his lead-out man Mark Renshaw (who Cavendish praised yesterday as the "world's best"), Steve Chainel (Bbox Bouygues Telecom), Cameron Meyer (Garmin-Slipstream), and Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) were also no-shows for the 172km journey northeast to Bologna.
Twelve kilometers into proceedings, a 13-strong group got away, and like the stage that preceded it, the break established a medium-sized lead around the four and a half minute mark after 70km - perhaps considered to be a controllable advantage by the Rabobank-led peloton. In the move were: Guillame Bonnafond (AG2r), Giampaolo Cheula and Christopher Froome (Barloworld), Vasili Kiryienka (Caisse d'Epargne), Philip Deignan and Simon Gerrans (Cervelo), Giovanni Visconti and Andriy Grivko (ISD), Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre), Francesco Reda (Quick Step), Rubens Bertaglioti (Diquigiovanni), Evgeny Petrov (Katusha), Martin Müller (Milram) and Eduard Vorganov (Xacobeo).
Over the first pair of Cat. 2 climbs, Milram's Müller was dropped somewhere along the way, making an even dozen out front, his absence not affecting the break's chances, that, with 62km remaining, still had four minutes flat between them and the peloton.
The penultimate categorised climb of Mongardino signalled exactly 23km remaining. Holding a 1:44 advantage at this point, one had to give at least a few of those blokes a chance - so long as they still had the legs. And after 160km away coupled with a 2.1km hilltop finish in San Luca, the victor would need all the legs he had left.